Story

Gun Violence Plagues Guatemala

gun-gut-0015.jpg

The body of a young man, believed to be 18 or 19, on a street in Ciudad Mixco, Guatemala, where the firearm homicide rate is almost twice the global average. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0016.jpg

Two youths are questioned by police who suspect them of trying to rob commuters in Guatemala City. Many young people in Guatemala are caught in a cycle of poverty and violence. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0017.jpg

Two teenagers at Roosevelt Hospital in Guatemala City after a shooting. The police believe the shootings were a result of gang conflicts over territory. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0018.jpg

Evidence collected by Guatemalan police during a pursuit: a handgun, cellphones and checks totaling the equivalent of $60. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0019.jpg

One of the men caught in that pursuit. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0020.jpg

Firefighters cover the body of a man in his 20s who was killed by a town’s residents for stealing a cellphone. It is not uncommon for people in Guatemala’s marginal areas to take the law into their own hands, since they do not trust the justice system. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0021.jpg

Each year at La Verbena cemetery in Guatemala City, some 2,000 graves are exhumed because of overdue fees and limited space. A new permit costs about $30. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0022.jpg

Outside Ciudad Mixco, people pray at the ministry Hechos de Guatemala, which provides shelter and food to homeless men and women who abuse drugs and alcohol. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0023.jpg

National Civil Police officers look for a gun that was thrown out of a car after a man opened fire on an officer. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0024.jpg

Police at the scene of a homicide in Ciudad Mixco; a taxi driver was shot by a 16-year-old. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0025.jpg

The scene of a shooting in Guatemala City. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

image.adapt_.960.high_.jpg

A coffin near the city morgue in Guatemala City. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

gun-gut-0027.jpg

Police officers lead two suspected gang members to courtrooms. Image by Carlos Javier Ortiz. Guatemala, 2013.

Gun violence is an epidemic that affects youth from all walks of life. In Guatemala young people experience the consequences of gun violence every day, adding another difficult obstacle to their daily lives. The Northern Triangle of Central America is currently one of most violent regions in the world and compares with Iraq, Somalia or Sudan. Young men and women are most susceptible to armed violence, and those living in marginal areas are particularly at risk. As a result of such exposure, youth can become both perpetrators and victims of the hostile environment. (www.youthpolicy.org/)

My interest in capturing violence in the developing world is to bring attention to what usually fades into the background. I began following the families of victims in Chicago and was struck by the incredible grief, loneliness, and fear that shadow these survivors of violent crime. Unfortunately, families in the United States share a common burden with families in Guatemala, who also carry the threat of violence with them everyday. In fact, the situation in Guatemala is so dire many families see no other option than to take matters into their own hands by forming vigilante groups to protect themselves from gangs. These gangs use violence to extort residents out of scarce resources. As a result, innocent Guatemalans carry out their daily activities in mortal fear for their lives and livelihoods.

Many young people who are involved in gangs say they join a gang as the last option to belong somewhere in society. Most of these young people come from abusive households. For Guatemalan youth breaking out of this cycle of poverty and violence is almost impossible. There are few social programs to help them get back on their feet. The Guatemalan government has enforced the “iron fist” approach, known as mano dura in the past, but the iron fist approach has not worked in stopping the violence.

Guatemala’s release of end-of-year crime statistics for 2012 showed a drop in the murder rate to 34 per 100,000 residents, down from 38.5 in 2011. This is the third consecutive annual decrease since the murder rate peaked in 2009, but the 2012 figure still translates to 5,155 murders and makes Guatemala one of the more dangerous countries in the world, according to data from the U.S. Department of State in 2012.

These are not problems bound by political orientation, social class, country of origin, or race. Violence affects youth and their families from all walks of life. By illuminating the images of victims and survivors who face these problems on a daily basis, I hope I can help bring them out of the shadows of death.